Despite being the most common form of abuse, emotional abuse is usually not taken as seriously as physical abuse, in part because it leaves no visible scars. In reality, psychological abuse can cause just as much lasting harm as a physical attack. Emotional abuse can occur between any two people, but perhaps the most insidious kind is the abuse of a romantic partner.
This is all the more damaging because it comes from someone you want to trust – someone you choose to bring into your life and form an attachment with on your own terms. Continued abuse of this kind can lead a victim to develop psychological disorders that plague them for the rest of their life. All couples fight and argue, it’s only natural, but how do you know when their behaviour is really dangerous? In her book The Verbally Abusive Relationship – How to Recognise it and How to Respond, psychologist Patricia Evans identifies 15 separate criteria for emotionally abusive behaviour.
Emotional abuse doesn’t even have to involve speech – it can be perpetrated through silence instead, or by a lack of physical intimacy, or by a partner deliberately keeping secrets and information. All relationships are predicated on feelings of trust and a need for openness and transparency, and when this is denied it immediately creates an imbalance of power. The person being ignored has no feedback, and creates a number of imagined justifications for the neglect in their head, which only leads to further loneliness.
Countering is a behaviour in which the abuser will immediately argue against or take a contrary opinion to their target, no matter what the subject. Abusers will try to wear down their victim’s free will and critical thinking by rejecting everything they say outright, and present their own opinions and values as universal, unarguable fact. Abusers will often shut down an argument by simply stating “you’re wrong” – without ever having a proper discussion.
Abusers will commonly ignore your personal feelings and emotional issues in favour of their own self-interested agenda. It’s similar to the above method of abuse, but acts as a way of proving the victim’s worthlessness to themselves and making them feel like their instincts and preconceptions are wrong, or invalid. If the victim is upset about something, or depressed, the abuser will tell them they’re making a mountain out of a molehill, or are imagining things, are too sensitive, and can’t take a joke. Eventually the frequency of the discounting will lead the victim to become uncertain of their own perception and judgement.
4. Cruel humour
All couples enjoy ribbing each other from time to time: it’s how we show that we’re comfortable enough with each other to explore personal boundaries and have a laugh with each other. But we all know when these jokes go too far and are designed to hurt, degrade and insult, instead of entertain and amuse. If you feel like you’re the butt of every harsh gag then it’s a fair indicator that your partner doesn’t view you as an equal.
Blocking is another way for abusers to avoid discussing aspects of their behaviour. They might designate certain implicit subjects “off-limits” as a way of controlling conversation and asserting dominance. When someone puts up an emotional brick wall and tries to close off communication then it’s a clear sign that they see themselves as above reproach.
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